Midpoints

I’m a big fan of college basketball, and I really enjoyed the section of Dan Pink’s book When that discussed midpoints. Pink shared interesting research of college basketball teams which showed that teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win the game than the team that was up by one point. When teams were down by more than one at halftime they were less likely to win the game, but a one point deficit seemed to be a good thing. The reason, according to Pink’s read of the research, that the team down one at halftime came back to win was due to the “uh-oh effect” which spurred a sense of urgency for the losing team. The team that was up one point, and teams that faced larger halftime deficits were more likely to face an “oh-no effect” and were more likely to retreat.

 

Thinking about college basketball teams at halftime can translate into other aspects of our lives. If we hit 40 or 50 years-old we might have our own “uh-oh” or “oh-no” moment. When we are two quarters into the big project at work that we said we would complete before the end of the year, when we are halfway through a school semester, and every day at lunch we face a midpoint. We can look at what we have accomplished up to that point and decide whether we are going to push forward and double our effort, or if things feel hopeless and we might as well fold.

 

Regarding midpoints, Pink writes, “with midpoints, as with alarm clocks, the most motivating wake-up call is one that comes when you’re running slightly behind.” In college basketball, the team that is down one at the break realizes that they still have a chance, and that they need to pull things together to get the win. In life, we recognize that we have wasted several years at a job we dislike, that we haven’t hit the milestones on our work-project that we need to, or that we didn’t perform as well as we hoped on that midterm exam. These moments can spur us to action if we see that we are not too far off pace to reach our goals. However, if we are really missing the mark, we should recognize that midpoints can turn our motivation the other way.

 

If we see that we don’t have a chance of living in a mansion after all, if we won’t hit the project deadline even if we add 10 additional staff, and that we have no chance of getting an A in the course after bombing a midterm, then we are likely to give-up. In work and school we don’t have control over when we set the midpoint, and that wake-up call can be painful. Walking away might really be our best bet.

 

In life, however, we can control what we consider the midpoint, and we can change our motivation accordingly. Where it might make sense in business or school to walk away and focus a better effort elsewhere, in life we must move forward. Our best option becomes changing our midpoint perception and finding a way where we can look at our life and see ourselves as just slightly behind where we want to be. That way we take advantage of the motivation form the college basketball study and spur an “uh-oh effect” rather than face an “oh-no effect” and give-up.

 

What is important to recognize with midpoints is that they can be an opportunity for honest reflection of our progress in life, business, and other endeavors. Where we find ourselves at the midpoint can shape how we perform for the second half. Being slightly off-pace can spur us to action, but finding ourselves way behind can trigger a sense of defeatism. When possible, we can manage our halftimes to be more favorable for us, but when we can’t pick and choose our midpoint, then we face tough decisions in how we proceed.

Judicial Sentencing and Daylight Saving Time

Our justice system in the United States is not the greatest system that we have developed. In recent years a lot of attention has been paid to disparities in sentencing and ways in which the system doesn’t seem to operate fairly. For instance possession of the same amount crack cocaine and powder cocaine carried different mandated sentences, even though it was the same drug just in different forms. The sentencing differences represented a bias in the way we treated the drug considering who was more likely to be a crack versus powder cocaine user.

 

In general, we believe that our system is fair and unbiased. We like to believe that our judges, jurors, and justice system officials are blind, only seeing the facts of the case and making rational decisions that are consistent from case to case. It is important that we believe our system works this way and that we take steps to ensure it does, but there is evidence that it does not and that basic factors of our humanity prevent the system from being perfectly fair.

 

An interesting example of the challenges of creating a perfectly balanced judicial system is presented in Daniel Pink’s book When. Pink’s book is an exploration of time and the power of timing in our lives. He presents evidence that the human mind’s decision-making ability deteriorates throughout the course of the day, becoming less nuanced, less analytical, and more easily distracted the longer we have been awake and the longer we have been focused on a task. Judges are no exception.

 

Pink references a study that shows that simple timing changes can impact the decisions that judges make, even when the timing seems as though it should be irrelevant. Pink writes, “Another study of U.S. federal courts found that on the Mondays after the switch to Daylight Saving Time, when people on average lose roughly forty minutes of sleep, judges rendered prison sentences that were about 5 percent longer than the ones they handed down on typical Mondays.”

 

A slight loss of sleep, and a slight change in time resulted in inconsistent sentencing within our courts. The decisions our judges make are nuanced and challenging, and our judges have to make multiple life impacting decisions each day. Unfortunately, the system within which they operate is not designed to help provide more consistency across scheduling. Factors such as Daylight Saving Time, extensive blocks between lunch and breaks, and long daily schedules wear out our judges, and lead to less nuanced thinking and less fair sentences. We should think about how our system impacts the decisions we make (within the judicial system, the corporate board room, and on the factory floor) and try to redesign systems around time to help people make better and more consistent decisions.

The Time for Being Moral

Morality and our behavior is one of the spaces that I think demonstrates how little our actions and behaviors seem to actually align with the way we think about ourselves and the level of control we have in our lives. We believe that we are the masters of our own sails and that we are in control of what we do in the way that a CEO is in control of a company. We blame people when they make mistakes, hide our own shortcomings, and are pretty tough on ourselves when we don’t do the things we said we would do.

 

We hold ourselves and others to high moral standards and approach morality as if there is one fixed standard that is set in stone, but in our lives we don’t actually live that out. However, small factors that we likely ignore or completely fail to recognize play a huge role in our actual behaviors, and shape how we think about morality and whether we behave in a way that is consistent with the moral values we claim to have. One example is time.

 

In his book When, author Dan Pink looks at the ways that humans behave and interact with the world at different times of the day. Most people start their day out with a generally positive affect that peaks somewhere around 4 to 6 hours after waking up. Their mood then plummets and they experience a trough in the middle of the day and afternoon where their affect is more negative, their patience is shorter, and their attention is dulled. But, luckily for us all, people generally show a tendency to rebound in the late afternoon and early evening and their mood and affect improve. Night owls show the same pattern, but generally reversed starting out in more of a rebound phase, running through a trough in the middle of the day, and peaking in the evening.

 

Studies seem to show that this cycle holds for our attentiveness, our mood, and also our morality. Pink writes, “synchrony even affects our ethical behavior. In 2014 two scholars identified what they dubbed the morning morality effect, which showed that people are less likely to lie and cheat on tasks in the morning than they are later in the day.” Pink continues to explain that subsequent research seems to indicate that we are more moral during our peak. Most people are morning people and are most moral in the mornings. Night owls seem to be more moral in the evening when they hit their peak.

 

It seems strange that we would have certain times when we behave more moral. For the standard story we tell ourselves, we are rational agents who are not influenced by cheesy commercials, by insignificant details, or by the random time at which something takes place. We are the masters of our own destiny and we are in control of our own behavior and thoughts. This story, however, doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of our lives. If simply changing the time of day during which we have to make a morality decision changes the outcome of our decision, then we should ask if we really are in control of our thoughts and actions. It seems that we are greatly influenced by things that really shouldn’t matter when it comes to crucial decisions about morality and our behavior.

Everything Matches

Tyler Cowen is worried about our matching technology. We have algorithms which tell us what TV shows to watch, which books to read, what wine to drink, and what shoes to wear. We can be matched with romantic partners and music, and very often our matching gives us exactly what we wanted and were hoping for. But, in the eyes of Cowen, all this matching has a dark side. It can make us complacent and can lead to greater segregation between people with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests.

 

In his book The Complacent Class Cowen writes, “Better matching for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of more segregation … Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us. Matching brings many new and varied delights into our lives, but in a lot of spheres, the like-to-like effects of matching outweigh the ability of matching to shake us up. That is partly why matching can make us so happy.”

 

We like matching. We like knowing that other people like us already like the restaurant we are going to, or the show that is on tv, or the song that is about to play. We like when things are similar to what we already know. It reduces our cognitive burden and eliminates the stress of picking something and spending money on something we ultimately do not like. We are all risk averse to losing money, and hate the feeling of sunk costs. Matching makes us happy by making decisions more simple and helping us avoid the feeling of loss. It reduces our worries and in many instances, such as auto-playing shows online, we don’t even have to make a decision at all.

 

At the same time, matching technology reduces the chances for us to find something new. Up-and-coming artists with a new take on an old style can have trouble breaking through if the algorithms don’t match them with our tastes. We might miss out on great new content because our matching technology put us in a certain silo. When we reduce opportunities for new experiences, we stagnate, leading to the complacency that Cowen feared as we lose a belief that we could be something better than what we are and currently have.

 

A further downside to the matching technology we use is the potential for extreme segregation. If we really like one sport, then we can be pushed ever further into the specifics of that sport. Our algorithms can provide more and more specific content, advertisements, and connections to that single sport, eliminating things unrelated to the sport from our orbit. As we get further along, we might find that all the people we interact with are also obsessed with our particular team from one particular sport, and we will lose some ability to be with people who are not also living in the same bubble.

 

The sports example is a relatively harmless side of segregation, but it can be worse. Racial, political, and religious segregation are also possible with our matching technology. As we burrow down in our own communities, in real life or online, we may alienate those who do not look, think, and hold the same preferences that we do, leading to situations where we cannot have meaningful interactions with diverse people. This type of segregation is not healthy in a democracy because it makes shared visions and understandings of society and culture impossible across different isolated bubbles.

 

Our matching might make us happy and reduce our cognitive load, but it certainly comes with dangerous downsides. We can embrace the matching technology we have, but we should also be aware of what can happen if we let it make too many decisions in our lives. We should also find ways, times, and spaces where we can get beyond the matching to try something new and experience something beyond our typical bubble.

A Glitch in Voting With Our Feet

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars, and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else, and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting for or against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone who is clearly to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should (I would argue) raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more or less segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions.

 

This works because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. They are following cultural and structural factors which push us to want ever larger houses in ever more expensive neighborhoods, recreating segregation that often created pockets of towns that are so different economically and culturally. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious power to shape the world for better or worse. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

How To Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about this topic. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging peoples behaviors by changing the inputs into their mind.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains, are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by certain norms.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.”

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high-minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about the children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described, and this spreads throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to that likely account for a large portion of why we do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.